NP Advocates to Know: Dr. Jessica Peck on Human Trafficking

“We, as NPs, encounter people victimized by trafficking much more often than we’re aware. We’re well positioned to help, but often not equipped. So my mission is to equip, engage, inform, and empower nurses to respond to trafficking occurring in clinical environments.”

Dr. Jessica Peck is a Clinical Professor, Louise Herrington School of Nursing, Baylor University

Advocacy is woven deeply into the nurse practitioner (NP) role. It’s a part of the job that’s never finished. Advocacy can occur at a micro level, by advocating one-on-one for a particular patient, or at the macro level, by lobbying for policy changes; it’s often a mix of the two. 

For many NPs, advocacy concerns a particular issue close to their heart, one connected to underserved patients who deserve additional support. For Dr. Jessica Peck, the issue is the fight against human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery. It occurs whenever someone is compelled to work, provide services, or engage in commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion. The total number of trafficked persons is hard to know with certainty—human trafficking remains woefully underreported and underidentified—but it is happening within the borders of the United States and with shocking regularity. 

On the surface, nursing and human trafficking can seem worlds apart. But over the last eight years, Dr. Peck’s research and advocacy have helped uncover the surprising and actionable ways they intersect. Equipped with the proper education and training, NPs can be ideally positioned and well-prepared to identify, treat, and support trafficked persons. 

To learn more about Dr. Peck’s work, and how other NPs can join the fight against human trafficking, read on.

 Meet the Expert: Jessica L. Peck, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, FAANP, FAAN

Dr. Jessica Peck is a clinical professor at the Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing (LHSON) and a nationally recognized anti-human trafficking advocate. She currently serves as a lead medical consultant for Unbound Houston; in the past, she served as the founding chair of the Alliance for Children in Trafficking (ACT) and started the ACT Advocates grassroots advocacy program, training tens of thousands of nursing professionals at the local, state, national, and international level to respond to human trafficking in their communities. Dr. Peck worked with the US Office of Health and Human Services and the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center to author the first federally issued Core Competencies for health response to trafficking.

Dr. Jessica Peck has served in elected leadership in various professional organizations, including American Association of Nurse Practitioners (Region 6 Director); National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (President); and Texas Nurse Practitioners. In 2019, she was honored as Texas Nurse Practitioner of the Year and inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

An Advocate’s Journey to Educate Nurses on Human Trafficking

The rabbit hole that would become Dr. Peck’s research into human trafficking began in 2015, when the director of Unbound Houston asked her to help develop continuing education for nurses in identifying and treating trafficked persons.

“My first response was absolutely not,” Dr. Peck laughs. “I didn’t know anything about trafficking. I said, ‘You need to find an expert.’ But there were none.”

Back then, Dr. Peck might not have known much about trafficking, but she did know how to educate nurses. As she dug into the research, she saw human trafficking occurring all across the care continuum, yet noticeably absent at every step of nursing education. There was no mention of human trafficking in nursing curriculums, nursing textbooks, or nursing certification exams. The scope of the problem started to become apparent.

“As NPs, we have lenses for substance misuse, mental health concerns, or interpersonal violence,” Dr. Peck says. “We’re educated on those things, and we know how to look for them. But what I realized was we did not have a lens for human trafficking.”

The research around human trafficking from a healthcare perspective remains in its infancy. There’s a lack of shared nomenclature and comprehensive databases. But the evidence exists for those willing to look for it. In Dr. Peck’s view, the seminal piece of literature on the subject came from the Annals of Health Law, which found that up to 87 percent of trafficking victims encountered a healthcare provider without being identified as such. 

“We, as NPs, encounter people victimized by trafficking much more often than we’re aware,” Dr. Peck says. “We’re well positioned to help, but often not equipped. So my mission is to equip, engage, inform, and empower nurses to respond to trafficking occurring in clinical environments.”

How NPs Can Identify and Respond to Human Trafficking

In 2019, Dr. Peck helped pass Texas HB 2059, which requires healthcare providers in the state to take continuing education related to human trafficking. Texas wasn’t the first state to require human trafficking education, but it was the first to require standards for that education. And that’s vital in topics like human trafficking, which is plagued by misconceptions.

“The important message I’d give to NPs is to make sure you are taking evidence-based education that is designed specifically for healthcare providers,” Dr. Peck says. “There are a lot of well-intentioned but ill-informed educational efforts out there that can convey bias or unreliable statistics. And that can be really problematic.”

Unfortunately, most healthcare organizations and providers still lack a basic policy around identifying and treating trafficked persons. And, without regulatory enforcement to incentivize change, many will continue to forgo it. Year after year, Dr. Peck still advocates for the basics in equipping nurses to identify and respond to trafficked persons.

“I get a lot of calls from health systems across the country, and they’re in a point of crisis,” Dr. Peck says. “They have a patient in the care environment right then, and they want to know what to do. The sad truth is there’s really nothing they can do in that moment that’s going to be very meaningful, except to heed it as a clarion call that they’re prepared for the next patient who comes in.”

In January 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) released its new Core Competencies for Human Trafficking Response in Health Care and Behavioral Health Systems. These Core Competencies are the first federal resource directed to help healthcare providers respond to trafficking. They represent a collaborative effort between physicians, social workers, mental behavioral health professionals, and other experts. The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP), NAPNAP Partners for Vulnerable Youth, and Dr. Peck participated in their development and review.

“We can’t raise awareness without also equipping people to respond to it,” Dr. Peck says. “The core competencies are for individual clinicians, health organizations, academic institutions, and researchers. I’d encourage everyone to read the core competencies and find yourself in that document.”

The Power of Advocacy in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

In 2018, Dr. Peck surveyed 799 members of NAPNAP and found that while 87 percent believed they might encounter a victim of trafficking in their practice, 35 percent were unsure if they had provided care for a victim, and only 24 percent reported confidence in their ability to identify a child at risk for trafficking. 

This year, she’s launching a new survey on the same topic, to gauge how the numbers have changed in the last five years, and to continue the advocacy journey she began nearly a decade ago. Dr. Peck hopes the statistics will have improved, but she doesn’t see her advocacy work ending any time soon.

“I started as an associate degree nurse on academic probation, the first woman in my family to go to college,” Dr. Peck says. “And now I’m walking the halls of Congress, speaking on TV and radio, serving as an advocate against human trafficking. I’ve found a lot of fulfillment and joy in advocacy.”

Advocacy sits at the heart of nursing, dating back to the profession’s origins. Today, it’s more important than ever that nurses exercise their collective voice to advocate for their patients. Too often, in the past, healthcare research and policy have lacked a nursing perspective. But whether it’s human trafficking or another issue, the holistic, patient-centered approach that nursing provides can be invaluable.

“Don’t underestimate your value as a nurse, and the value you can bring in advocacy,” Dr. Peck says. “Nursing as a profession is so powerful. We need to harness that power for the patient’s good.”

Resources for NPs Interested in Anti-Human Trafficking

To learn more about how new and aspiring NPs can get involved in the fight against human trafficking, check out some of the resources below.

  • Alliance for Children in Trafficking (ACT): Founded by the NAPNAP Partners for Vulnerable Youth, ACT has a mission to serve as the national leader in coordinating and uniting efforts to end the labor and sex trafficking of youth.
  • Core Competencies for Human Trafficking Response in Healthcare and Behavioral Health Systems: These core competencies pinpoint skill sets healthcare providers should acquire to identify, respond to, and serve individuals who have experienced trafficking and those at risk of trafficking.
  • HEAL Trafficking: HEAL Trafficking is a network of over 4,000 survivors and multidisciplinary professionals in 45 countries dedicated to ending human trafficking and supporting its survivors, from a health perspective.
  • National Human Trafficking Hotline: The National Human Trafficking Hotline is a 24/7, confidential, multilingual hotline available via phone, text, or live chat for victims, survivors, and individuals with human trafficking concerns. 
  • Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families, underneath the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), OTIP combats human trafficking by supporting and leading systems that prevent trafficking and protect survivors, helping them rebuild their lives and become self-sufficient.
  • Unbound Now: Founded in 2012 through Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, Unbound Now has since expanded into a network of chapters and anti-human trafficking projects worldwide.
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog


Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the modern nursing workforce, conducting hundreds of interviews with nurse leaders, nurse educators, and nurse advocates to explore the issues that matter to them most. His Advocates to Know series focuses on nurse practitioners (NPs) who go above and beyond in changing policy and practice in important areas like veteran’s care, human trafficking prevention, and telehealth access. He regularly collaborates with subject matter experts from the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP) to elevate issues that empower nurses everywhere.